Sunday, September 30, 2007

Some Like it Raw

My friend Daniel just got back from a weekend with friends in the Catalina Islands. Sounds like a perfectly normal way to spend time if you live in LA. Well, there was a catch. The only food they could eat was raw honey, fresh fruit and raw chocolate. So rapturous was this experience that Daniel, knowing my love of chocolate, insisted I make raw chocolate immediately. And I mean immediately. We abandoned drinks at COCO 500 for a bit of a wild goose chase around SOMA, seeking out ingredients. He promised it would be the best chocolate I ever tasted.

We found agave nectar and coconut oil down the block at Whole Foods, and raw cocoa powder at Rainbow. Rainbow also carries cocoa butter, but that would not do. We needed raw cocoa butter, and that I ordered later that evening from Sunfood Nutrition. I love their cookbook titles: Uncooking with RawRose, RAWvolution.

Daniel was adamant about all ingredients being raw, because that is the only way you can enjoy the maximum health benefits of chocolate. More antioxidants, more flavonols, more magnesium. Online companies promoting raw cacao products make a staggering array of claims on this, as though eating chocolate is just the same as taking your vitamins.

Armed with our raw ingredients, we looked over the simple recipe. Compared to the complex and labor-intensive process that real chocolatiers follow, it hardly seemed fair. Could this really result in the best chocolate I ever tasted?

Raw chocolate
* 1 cup of raw cacao powder
* 1/2 cup grated raw cocoa butter
* 5 T of coconut oil
* 1/3 cup of agave nectar
Measure the cacao powder into a large bowl. Add the oil and mix well until all lumps are blended. Mix in the cocoa butter. When the chocolate is at a smooth, creamy consistency, you are done! At this point, you may experiment with adding vanilla or cinnamon (raw of course) to the chocolate and then mold into whatever shapes please you.

When we finished mixing and molding, our little chocolate balls did not look like much. The texture was a bit gritty, about the consistency of cookie dough. They tasted like chocolate, which actually surprised me, but they also tasted like sunscreen. Too much cocoa butter, maybe too much coconut oil? My husband and I each ate one, while my son licked the bowl. But the rest of them languished in the fridge for a week until I finally tossed them.

I'm still intrigued by the idea of raw chocolate. But maybe I needed to be invited to a Catalina Party for the magic to overtake me. In the meantime, my next project is to read Naked Chocolate by David Wolfe. While I'm not quite ready to invest in a food dehydrator and a juicer (essentials of a raw-foodists kitchen), I would like to make at least one raw chocolate recipe that doesn't smell like the beach.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What a Label: Askinosie

Everyone is in a rush to check out the new Barney's, but I'm just as happy to browse our city's best chocolate specialty shops. Bittersweet Cafe displays their bars on the walls like the works of art they are. I stopped by on Friday and was drawn to a bar I had never seen before - Askinosie, 70% dark chocolate. I'd heard of the Missouri based company's strong commitment to Fair Trade chocolate, but it was the unique packaging that convinced me to try it.

The bar's wrapping looks like an ordinary brown grocery bag, tied at the top with rough twine. And if you're still not convinced this kind of packaging is natural, the labels assures "the tie that binds this package is from a biodegradable bag of beans shipped to our factory." The inner plastic wrap is "home compostable, non GM packaging from a sustainable source." So far, a perfect fit for our city! Following the trend of information-rich labeling in premium chocolate, Askinosie tells consumers not only the percentage of cacao, but the origin of the bean (San Jose Del Tambo, Ecaudor), the variety (Arriba Nacional) and even the lead farmer's name (Vitaliano Saravia) and picture. All of this information is in an old-school, imperfect font, as though it was typed onto a bag of beans for a customs agent - not to lure moneyed chocolate connoisseurs.

Shawn Askinosie's explanation of his slogan "real people, real places" all sounds very good. Vitaliano is the real person who gathered and fermented the beans for this bar. Shawn works directly with farmers, rather than bean brokers, and guarantees they get fair prices, open books and a stake in the outcome. (He even pays higher than the Fair Trade market price.)

After I untie the bag, I realize that, like a box of Cracker Jacks, this bar comes with a prize - a map! I've seen maps on the outside of chocolate bars, but never as a separate insert. (hmm, is this causing more waste than the average bar?) The map is actually a little confusing, because it describes two separate spots: San Jose Del Tambo in Ecuador and Soconusco in Mexico. I'm left wondering whether this map is supposed to be a "one size fits all" for all Askinosie bars, of if this particular bar was made in both spots. Plus, the direction of the cute little airplane makes it look like the bar goes from Missouri to Mexico to Ecuador. Maybe I need to visit the web site and type in my "choc-o-lot" number. If only my son was a little older, this could make an excellent geography project!
is a fabulously designed web site. From a marketing point of view, Shawn seems to be doing everything right. Real enthusiasts can read about his former career as a criminal defense lawyer, and his craving for Slim Jims and Jimmy Hendrix on a cacao farm in Ecuador. But I still have some business to attend to - finding out the real origins of my bar. I type in the "choc-o-lot" number and voila, everything I'd ever want to know about this bar. A few interesting points stand out. Askinosie makes their own cocoa butter for each batch, from the exact same liquor as the bar. They don't add vanilla. And Shawn loves fried catfish with hush puppies. Seriously! The journey is a series of journal entries from November '06 to July '07. Most of them relate to the actual chocolate making process, but Shawn throws in quite a few tidbits from his Indiana Jones/Milton Hershey personal life.

After all this research, it's time to try the chocolate! I'll share my thoughts next week...